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Next-generation genomic research platform launched in the UK for COVID-19

6 July 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1054

Genomics England has launched a new, secure, data-processing platform for global COVID-19 genomic research.

Partnering with a biomedical data processing start-up and a web services company, Genomics England has generated a virtual environment that will allow medical researchers and biopharma from around the world to access and analyse patient genomics data. 

The first project for the platform will be to analyse data to aid the COVID-19 response. The goal is to decipher individual responses to the pandemic and test the flexibility of genomic data through the platform's analytics capability. The platform will also access the 100,000 Genomes Project data to ultimately help understanding cancers and rare diseases.

Chris Wigley, CEO at Genomics England, said 'this is all about impact for patients in the UK and beyond, who will benefit from Genomic England's support for the response to this terrible pandemic. By improving understanding of why some patients have such severe responses to the virus while others have a mild response, Genomics England is helping to support vaccine and drug development. This will ultimately ensure that the treatment of the UK's COVID patients is personalised, safer and more effective'.

Working with Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC) consortium and the NHS, Genomics England will be adding to the comparisons of new whole-genome sequencing data from up to 20,000 COVID-19 intensive care patients, and up to 15,000 people with mild symptoms.

Startup Lifebit designed the platforms which will enable scientists worldwide to analyse large genomic datasets using various applications and to collaborate in real-time in the safe environment of Genomics England. Dr Maria Chatzou Dunford, CEO of Lifebit, said: 'For the first time, we have managed to combine Fort Knox-grade security for participant data with maximum research flexibility. Genomics England sets a precedent on how research platforms should bring computation to the data, rather than the other way around. Now disparate cohorts of large and sensitive data can be analysed by researchers without copying or moving the data, and true collaboration can happen… this rings in an end to the era of risky and unnecessary data transfers.'

Amazon Web Services (AWS) in the meantime will provide the computing power and secure 'cloud' storage infrastructure that will allow multi-user access enabling international collaborations. John Davies, head of the UK and Ireland healthcare for AWS' public sector division, added: 'Using AWS, Genomics England will be able to provide researchers with access to secure, scalable cloud computing resources that will enable them to perform studies to better understand the virus and deliver better outcomes and treatments for NHS patients.'

It is hoped that this innovative platform will allow researchers to discover genetic factors that may explain why some patients are more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to COVID-19, or are more severely affected; subsequently identifying those most at risk. Furthermore, this ground-breaking research environment may also aid researchers towards a more rapid development of vaccines and treatments.

Genomics England launches next-generation research platform central to UK COVID-19 response
Genomics England |  29 June 2020
Genomics England taps up AWS and Lifebit to create cloud-based COVID-19 research environment
Computer Weekly |  30 June 2020
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